Guards at the Taj at the Bush TheatreCultureTheatre
Guards at the Taj is a slightly odd pick for the Bush Theatre’s first major production after a year-long refurbishment. In the shadow of the Taj Mahal guards Humayun (Danny Ashok) and Babur (Darren Kuppan) stand watch, forbidden to steal a glimpse at the yet to be completed palace, passing the time with brotherly bickering. It’s not the kind of theatrical event one would expect of a grand reopening – two men on a wall, talking – especially with Jamie Lloyd in the director’s chair. But Rajiv Joseph’s play is a surprisingly wide-ranging, if at times clumsy, two-hander, exploring the cost of beauty and the weight of violence.
The piece gets off to a slow start. Joseph spends too much time parsing out exposition about the titular building, at detriment to the central relationship. Initially Humayun and Babur merely seem like colleagues – the former a patronising jobsworth, the latter a workshy dreamer. Yet their bond is meant to run deeper, and though this comes to the fore as the production progresses the opening scene suffers from a lack of genuine warmth or chemistry.
Things vastly improve once the history lesson is over. A bloody second act begins just as the guards have cut off 20,000 pairs of hands belonging to the labourers who built the Taj. It is a stark if fictional illustration of what often lies behind such beauty, and a timely reminder of the chaos wreaked by the whims of the powerful. From here the narrative only gets darker, loyalty clashing with duty and aesthetic debates turning into talk of regicide.
As Joseph’s writing increases in confidence so too do Ashok and Kuppan, who eventually forge a touching relationship in amidst the philosophical conversations. Kuppan in particular is very good, his dopey naivety turning to horror as the enormity of what he has done sinks in.
This friendship is aided by Lloyd’s direction which, bar the odd misstep like indulging the playwright’s blood-slick slapstick, is remarkably restrained. Two specific moments stand out. The first sees Humayun slowly wash the viscera of thousands of people off Babur’s body as his friend uncontrollably sobs, Lloyd allowing the scene a quiet, haunting tenderness.
The second happens just as the audience is about to witness the climactic act of violence. Everything suddenly goes black, a piecing sound filling the air; it is as if the moment has been censored, erased from history like so much of the blood soaked into the world’s wonders, both past and present (just think about Dubai). Joseph’s play goes some way to bringing such sacrifice back into the light.
Photos: Marc Brenner
Guards at the Taj is at the Bush Theatre from 7th April until 20th May 2017, for further information or to book visit here.